Immediate Release

Statement by Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III on the Passing of Senator Max Cleland

Nov. 9, 2021

The Department of Defense stands united in mourning the loss of Senator Max Cleland, an extraordinary public servant and a great patriot.

Max Cleland joined the U.S. Army in 1965—following in the tradition of his father, who served in World War II—and volunteered to fight in Vietnam. In April 1968, amid the fury of Khe Sanh, a live hand grenade was dropped on the ground, and its blast cost him both of his legs and his right arm. He served his country and his community from a wheelchair, following in the gallant tradition of his hero President Franklin Roosevelt. 

Senator Cleland wrote that he "found solace in attempting to ‘turn my pain into somebody else's gain' by immersing myself in politics and public service." After serving in statewide office in his beloved state of Georgia and working as a staffer for the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, he was named the head of the Veterans Administration, where he fought fiercely for his fellow veterans, made PTSD an official VA diagnosis, and helped create the groundbreaking Vet Centers program. Later, after being elected a U.S. senator from Georgia, he continued his passionate focus on defense and veterans' issues, serving with distinction on the Senate Armed Services Committee and leading on such issues as health care, bioterrorism preparedness, and homeland security. He also served on the 9/11 Commission before being nominated for the board of the Export-Import Bank. His final act of public service was leading the American Battlefield Monuments Commission. When battle maps of Vietnam were added to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii, he asked to add an inscription from the poet Archibald MacLeish: "We leave you our deaths: give them their meaning."

With courage and grit, Senator Cleland struggled with PTSD and depression—seeking help through counseling, medication, and attendance at a recovery group. He said that he drew strength from being around his fellow veterans and wounded warriors, including those from Iraq and Afghanistan. As the head of the VA, he made psychological counseling available to his fellow veterans. And I hope that his example will encourage others carrying unseen wounds to seek out the help they need and deserve. 

Senator Cleland liked to quote Hemingway, who wrote, "The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places." He surely was. Max Cleland's civic-minded spirit, optimism, and resilience will stand as an inspiration to every American.